Music to Memory: TCU 'Young & Retarded' X Portishead 'Dummy'

This one has been in the Google document wasteland for probably a year, lying in hibernation until the moment called. However, the moment never called and probably still remains silent. Despite this, I wanted to share it given the effort involved and in the hope that it connects with someone out there. 

The idea initially arose out of a brainstorm session, for engaging and unique articles to work into the Journal. I have always loved writing about and sharing music, so it was an obvious one to combine BMX and music. The 'music to memory' name came from this moment, however was deemed to be a little fringe to the core content and the LUXBMX Journal audience. 

For fear of it being lost to time and the digital wasteland, it is now presented as follows. 

The 'Dummy' album cover. Fun fact, this image is a still from a film made by and featuring the members of Portishead, called 'To Kill a Dead Man' - an 11 minute piece about an assassination. 

From my perspective, my love for music, and the music which I love largely comes from BMX videos in my formative years. These soundtracks have cemented themselves in my memory as well as fueled my love to research and explore new music.

From this standpoint, the following piece is offered as an opportunity to share both classic and recent BMX videos as well as (hopefully) introduce new music to the mind.

Welcome to ‘Music To Memory’.

The first piece centres around the 2013 BMX video ‘Young & Retarded’, produced by Thecomeup (TCU) and filmed/edited by Tony Malouf.

At the time, TCU was the biggest thing in online BMX media and this was their attempt at putting together a ‘pro’ team to highlight the best of the best of the up and coming biker boys. Alongside Broc Raiford, Dylan Stark, Dylan Lloyd and Stevie Churchil, the Arizona trip was improved with Australia’s own Liam Zingbergs and Brock Olive. Pretty cool to think that the land down under was represented against more heavy hitting nations such as the US. The boys were joined by Tony Malouf behind the lens/laptop.

To get right to the point, the video is soundtracked as follows:

  • Lana Del Rey - ‘Blue Jeans’
  • The Game - ‘Come Up (Ft. Drake & Lifestyle)’
  • Portishead - ‘Glorybox’

The first song is a classic from Lana Del Rey and works beautifully as an introduction to the crew and the style of riding you might expect throughout the video. With shorter cuts and the exclusive use of hype up clips, the editing works well to draw out the emotion of the song. As this section ends, the tension is perfectly balanced to align with the introduction of The Game’s track as the spot and moment remains the same. This song carries the viewer through the ‘meat’ of the video, leading a steady beat over high level technical riding right up until the pressure starts to rise and the final track warrants its presence.

This moment in the video is a memorable one, with Liam nailing a long, potential groin destroying icepick to barspin, confronting a fence on the roll out. What makes it so potent is the change in song, from a hip hop beat carrying a sense of attitude and boastfulness, straight into the unexpected vinyl scratch and soothing downtempo mood of Portishead’s fabled ‘Glorybox’ track. Not to mention the wonderfully hypnotic colours of the fading desert sunlight, hallmarked by the one and only Sony VX.

A still of Liam Zingbergs from 'Young & Retarded', the moment as above-described

While all the songs in this video ‘work’ and are appreciable in their own right, ‘Glorybox’ is remarkable for a range of reasons, including the era and album in which it came from, the people involved as well as the impact it has on the video.

Portishead was formed by Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow in the south of England in 1991, with their name taken from the coastal town (of the same name) in which Geoff grew up in and Beth lived nearby to. The band is active to this day, having released 3 full length albums over the span of 1994-2008, each a masterpiece in their own right however very much tied together with a coherence perpetrated by desperation, mystique and unwitting genius.

Geoff Barrow (left) and Beth Gibbons (right) by the sea. Photo taken from Mike Pizzo's article on Medium

While the rest of Britain was on the come down from the burgeoning acid house explosion and about to enter a fanatical britpop movement, Gibbons and Barrow were bunkering away, working to craft what would later become a completely original and time-enduring sound, described perhaps like scorched earth pop, blanketed in dive bar haze, mournful, sorrowful yet mysteriously enchanting, eerily seductive. One might suggest this is a roundabout way of describing ‘trip-hop’ - the somewhat inept genre too often attached to the Portishead name.

Perfecting this sound was only fully formed through the convergence of Adrian Utley, a jazz and R&B session guitarist with whom the band shared a special connection, an ability to freely share ideas and creative commons, despite the age gap. Their relationship blossomed through a shared love for discovering hidden musical gems and a DIY, learn as you go approach to the studio. It should be noted that Barrow brought a wealth of hip hop and analogue recording knowledge, evident amongst the incredible production and consistently moody, break-beat heavy grooves. Barrow even credits ‘All Hip Hop Acts Worldwide’ in the vinyl liner notes of ‘Dummy’.

The third Portishead member, Adrian Utley in his Bristol studio from 2013. Photo taken from NPR

Described in a Guardian interview of 2014, the group crafted this sound in a tortuous manner, with Barrow, Utley and drummer Clive Deamer recording on digital tape, taking out the best bits and recording to vinyl, then scratch-mixing the results back to tape. This was undertaken to draw out the idiosyncrasies as manufactured by Barrow and learnt since early teens in various bands and later on, through working at Coach House Studios (including contributing to the equally enamored Massive Attack album ‘Blue Lines’). Only at this point would Gibbons lay down vocals, in the privacy and isolation of her own home.

Beth Gibbons in her element, mic grasped, voice box primed. Photo taken from the Portishead socials

Her vocals are perhaps a defining attribute of Portishead, borrowing a healthy serving of depression era jazz gloom (think Billie Holiday), while at the drop of a hat reaching an ethereal apogee. Having limited experience, and for all intents and purposes, shunning the spotlight and notoriety, Gibbons is a captivating and crucial presence on both the recorded and live stages. There are many seriously poignant moments on ‘Dummy’, none more affecting than the way her voice echoes in dramatic proportions towards the end of ‘Glorybox’, as the lyrics go:

“For this is the beginning
Of forever and ever

You almost start to shake, feeling weak under the weight of the moment. It’s worth pausing here to circle back to the TCU ‘Young & Retarded’ video, highlighting the remarkable way that Tony Malouf has impactfully used this moment in ‘Glorybox’ to coincide with the videos banger, an insane whip across a flat stair to stair setup. The vocal echo and programmed distortion mirroring the text and allowing the audience to grasp the status of the riding as encouraged through the power of the track.

Portishead are often lumbered with the association of soundtracking dinner parties and romantic evenings, which makes me wonder how the group might receive being partnered to BMX. There may be something attractive given that BMX culture generally centres around taking the path less trodden, seeing the world in a different way and perhaps an element of anti-social exploits. As explained by Barrow in a 2008 Pop Matters interview, Portishead turned down a number of cheques associated with offers from the advertising industry and their music is often misinterpreted by mainstream society. With lyrical themes that often explore the ridiculousness of human behaviour and a distaste for capital structures, it would be considered ironic that those same people become unknowingly attracted to the Portishead sound.

Beth/Portishead performing live at the Toronto Sound Academy from October 2011. Photo taken from Diana Vasko's Flickr

While ‘Glorybox’ is no doubt a standout track from the ‘Dummy’ album (i.e. 23 million views on Youtube), the balance tracks are also incredible. In writing this piece, I took some notes as I listened to each song to offer a broader perspective on the album:

  • ‘Mysterons’ as the first track, brilliantly sets the tone for the album commencing with vinyl scratches, skittering drums and an eerie downtempo riff seized by a haunting guitar lick
  • ‘Sour Times’ as the second track, hot tip - the ‘Dummy’ album cover is lifted from the music video for this track. This song is again heavy with lyrics about yearning to be loved and is the moment where it becomes evident that the group have a soft spot for spaghetti western influences such as Ennio Morricone
  • ‘Strangers’ as the third track. Heaves forward with an awesome breakbeat, ruminating heavy bass and a series of samples
  • ‘It Could Be Sweet’ as the fourth track, offering programmed drums and leaning into the more conventional elements of trip-hop
  • ‘Wandering Star’ as the fifth track, parading considerably more vinyl scratches, heavy cymbals and pulsating electronic bass
  • ‘It’s a Fire’ track seven, awesome Lou Reed-esque bass with a hint of orchestral backing. There is a similarly amazing downtempo beat which sets the scene for the vocals to pierce one’s attention
  • ‘Roads’ track eight. Melancholic with keenly moody keys backed by a super delicate vocal delivery. There exists a certain smoky murkiness, a spooky escapade unfolds
  • ‘Pedestal’ track nine. Alluring and creepy, forces you to partake in a certain philosophical rumination
  • ‘Biscuit’ track ten. Big beat, stabbing horns, lazy keys, meditative beat.

The album wraps up. It’s almost hard to know how to feel, you can sense that you’ve taken in something truly original, era defining, however this tendency is somewhat diverted by the understatedness of the Portishead sound. There is a consistent theme running through each track, in the attraction to pursuing a downtempo tone, enhanced through strong hip hop, spaghetti western and Italian soundtrack influences. Portishead are also clearly crate digging immortals, another big influence on their sound. The impeccable samping on ‘Dummy’ includes ‘The Danube Incident’ from Lalo Schifirin, ‘Weather Report’ from Elegant People, ‘Magic Mountain’ from Eric Burdon/WAR and of course, the ‘Glory Box’ sample - ‘Ikes Rap III’ by Isaac Hayes, to name but a few.

In closing, it brings me great pleasure to see the combination of two beautiful artistic forces, culminating in a project that does what all great projects should do, synergise to produce a joint effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

The TCU ‘Young & Retarded’ video is full of incredible riding from a group of dudes that were ahead of their time. While this goes a long way to cinematic glory, it is catapulted into a state of reverential renown as a result of the Tony Malouf production. Beyond the ability of Malouf to capture the ‘moment’, to cut so well, to hold the VX so still, to apply that thick vignette which works so effectively, to know how to incorporate ample slo-mo without overdoing it - beyond all this - is simply the consequential impact of employing the magnificence of ‘Glory Box’.

Thanks for reading.